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Artist gains exclusive access to HMS Bulwark saving lives in the Med

July 7, 2015

I recently returned from spending time with the Royal Navy on-board HMS Bulwark during their mission, Op Weald, in the Mediterranean. I wrote an article about it to accompany my illustrations. Unfortunately the press are either completely uninterested in the work or at least uninterested in paying for it – some have offered to take it for free! So I’ll publish it myself in the interests of Reportage Illustration. (Of course, they may not want it because it’s not good enough!)


Royal Navy saves the lives of thousands of people in the Mediterranean.

I joined HMS Bulwark in Malta on the 15th June. The ship’s crew were just getting ready to return the ship to sea after a few days respite following their largest rescue of 1200 migrants in the Mediterranean just the week before. I’d asked the Royal Navy if I could spend time onboard one of their ships to observe and record, using illustration, the life on and below decks and the work they carry out. It could have been on any ship in any number of places across the globe but considering it’s current mission HMS Bulwark seemed ideal. Bulwark is a Landing Platform Dock – a command and assault vessel carrying 4 large LCUs (Landing Craft Utility) and 4 smaller LCVPs (Landing Craft Vehicle and Personnel), 2 Merlin Helicopters and a detachment of 45 Royal Marine Commando.

Captain Nick Cooke-Priest, in Command of HMS Bulwark, outlined her current mission. Known as Op WEALD, the UKs contribution to SOLAS (Saving Of Life At Sea) Operations in the Mediterranean under a bi-lateral agreement with the Italian Navy. There are a number of European Nations involved in various operations with the ultimate aim of saving the lives of thousands of migrants desperately trying to make the extremely dangerous and hazardous trip from the coast of Libya across the Mediterranean to, what they see as, a ‘better life’ in Europe.

I spent the first few days on-board taking various tours and then trying, and often failing, to find my way around the seemingly endless and often identical looking corridors that run through the vast innards of the ship. Making your way round a large vessel, especially a military one where all the pipework, cabling and machine parts are bare, is like entering an alien world. With no landmarks to aid navigation I often found myself wandering around in circles looking for a familiar piece of machinery, junction, stairway or airlock or, more often than not, gratefully hearing the words, “Where are you trying to get to sir?”, from one of the nearly 500 sailors and marines on-board.

Flight-Control-2The crew themselves were friendly and keen to know what I was doing and where the pictures would end up. Each Officer was keen to show me their part of the ship and explain what they do there. I spent time on the Flight Deck and in the Flight Control Room that overlooked it, sketching the Merlins and the people controlling their every move. I visited the engine rooms – from the enormous engines themselves through chamber after chamber of endless pipework and machinery, and then down, down, down into the depths of the ship, crawling on hands and knees at one point, to watch engineers in white overalls carry out drills to allow them to steer the ship using the rudder shafts directly. I sketched the everyday work of the sailor, mopping and cleaning the labyrinth corridors, the airlocks and outer decks – stripping, cleaning and re-greasing every part. The Chaplain, known on board ship as “The Bish” showed me his tiny chapel and even tinier classroom where he explained sailors could study and be examined for their GCSE’s.

As I settled into life at sea, and during the days it took to travel at a maximum speed of 18 knots from Malta to the Libyan coast preparations were made for the inevitable sighting, and subsequent rescue, of migrants who would set off from the beaches of Libya as soon as their traffickers deemed the weather suitable. On Saturday 20th June a Merlin from 814 Squadron during it’s early morning sortie, spotted and pinpointed 3 migrant vessels in need of rescue.

The migrants generally travel in two types of craft. One type being large wooden boats, a cross between a huge rowing boat and some kind of fishing trawler, two decks but with no oars, no mast and a small engine with, quite likely, less fuel than required for a journey across the med. The other variety were large  rubber inflatables, again sporting undersized engines and little fuel. The wooden boats could be laden with up to 450 migrants, the rubber ones around about 100, all crammed together like the proverbial sardines. When you consider the fact that the vast majority of the people in these boats have never seen or experienced a body of water such as the Mediterranean, let alone attempted to navigate across one, you start to see the desperation they must feel. As they sit, or more likely stand, in water and soon their own waste for hour after hour the realisation of their predicament must begin dawning on them.

The three boats HMS Bulwark was now steaming towards were approximately 40 miles north of the Libyan coastline. Lt. Alessio Sabbitini, the Liaison Officer for the Italian Navy onboard HMS Bulwark, tells me,”The first information we have about the boats is they start appearing at about 5 or 6am. When we spotted them they are 12 miles off the coast, just outside the territorial waters limit, and so they have definitely left the Libyan coast during the night.” Lt. Sabbitini is the Liaison Officer for the Italian Navy on-board HMS Bulwark. This means that by the time the Merlins of 814 Sqn have pinpointed their position in the water they have been at sea for between 11 and 12 hours. I’m told that MRCC (Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre) in Rome have tasked HMS Bulwark to affect a rescue of one of the wooden boats with other rescues being conducted by the German Frigate Schleswig-Holstein and a small civilian MSF (Médecins Sans Frontieres) Charter – Dignity 1.


I made my way down into the cavernous vehicle deck that runs over three quarters the length of the ship which itself is 176 metres long and 29 metres wide. I climbed onboard one of the four LCUs to join a Navy Medic, a Navy Photographer and a group of Royal Marine Commandos. I was handed a pair of surgical gloves and a face mask to wear. The entire stern of the ship is lowered and the dock section of the vehicle deck is flooded with water so that as the giant rear platform opens the LCUs can sail from within. As we motored through the water I clambered up to look over the side of the brown and black landing craft that seems very much the same, to my untrained eye, as the landing craft that landed in Normandy on DDay some 70 years ago. I sketched as the overcrowded migrant boat came into view. The number of people onboard was bewildering. I tried to draw them but ended up just outlining head upon head upon head. Wooden-Boat-Migrants_webTwo LCVPs were circling around the boat as Marines tossed bright orange life jackets into the throng of upraised hands. The multicoloured mass of bodies soon took on a uniform orange as the life jackets were put on to produce a striking contrast with the bright blue and white colours of the boat. Once the life jackets were in place the Marines started loading migrants into their landing craft  and ferrying them across to our bigger craft. The front platform of our craft was lowered so that the smaller craft could lower it’s platform to rest upon ours and migrants could be guided from one to the other.

The relief on their faces as they stepped onto the deck, took off their life jackets and sat down was obvious. You could see immediately the mix of nationalities. Some were bare foot whilst others looked like they’d just stepped off a plane well dressed for a special trip. There were small children, babies, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, friends. I witnessed two young men hugging and shaking hands with beaming faces. I couldn’t understand what they were saying but I’ve no doubt it was along the lines of “We’ve made it!”. I was impressed by the patience and calmness of the Marines as they went about the task of loading the craft until it was almost as full as the one they’d been rescued from. Later, Commander Gavin Edward, Commander WE (Weapon Engineering) and Press Officer for HMS Bulwark, tells me 315 migrants, including 18 females and 4 infants came off that boat. It was time to raise the platform and I sat on some large boxes drawing as the LCU made its way back into the belly of its ship.



The first thing that happens when the migrants climb up the incline from the LCUs lowered platform onto the vehicle deck of the ship is a thorough search. Men and women in white medical overalls, surgical masks and gloves search each migrant as they step onto the deck. The men of 45 Commando, also masked and gloved, watch on. I’m already aware that efforts to identify the human smugglers among the genuine migrants is underway. On our own LCU I couldn’t help but notice one man taking control and directing others as though he’d been through it all before. This behaviour doesn’t get past the Navy either, as I was to find out later, evidence is gathered throughout the process and handed to the authorities upon arrival on the mainland during the disembarkation process.


Right now though the task of processing had begun. Every migrant, after being searched makes their way to a table where a map is laid out for them to point to their country of origin. Details are noted, numbers given and photographs taken. The sick, of which there were a great many more on this occasion than previous rescues, are taken to the medical tent to be examined and treated by Navy Medics. I sketch a young 17 year old man who is covered in Scabies as others are put on drips and issued with antibiotics in the cramped tent that is situated at the far end of a cordoned off area that runs down the centre of the vehicle deck. Blue painted metal fences provide a barrier between most of the crew and the migrants. The risk of infection is controlled by a one way in, one way out system. Gloves and masks disposed off, hands washed and feet dipped in a chemical tray on the way out. Food, water and blankets are handed out. From the centre of the vehicle deck a vast metal ramp climbs up to the flight deck. As the hours pass, more migrant loaded LCUs arrive and the processing continues. The vehicle deck fills, and with the line of chemical toilets in constant use the whole scene starts to resemble a bizarre rock festival. The ramp up to the flight deck fills and then out into the bright Mediterranean sunshine the swarm of people spreads. By the time the loading is over there are 914 survivors on board of whom 133 were women, many pregnant, and 39 below the age of 18.

Surgeon Lieutenant Louise MacMenemy tells me that this ‘pick-up’ seems to have the highest number of sick people they have seen. She believes it is probably to do with the ethnic make up of this group. There are many Eritreans who would have found it hard to access any form of healthcare. I ask her about reports from the UK where people seem to be suggesting we should just let the migrants drown in the Mediterranean.  “I think they just don’t understand. Maybe they think they are going to invade or something. From what I’ve seen they [the migrants] just want to go and get a job, settle down, set up their family however they can. It doesn’t seem to be anything different from that.” Louise points to a group among the throng of people, “You see this kid with her family? She’s dressed in her Sunday best. This is it. They just want to arrive and impress.” She goes on to tell me about a man they picked up who was wearing a suit and a tie. He was trying to clean himself up and looked like he was getting ready for a job interview . . . “he didn’t have any shoes on though. It’s terrible.”



On the flight deck, during the day and a half’s sail from the coast of Libya to the port of Taranto in Italy, with what appeared to be a church service going on at one end of the deck – a biblical looking preacher, a white blanket thrown about him like a priests robes, and singing and laughter at the other, I spoke to one group of young men. Hamld, Ahmed and Habremichael are from Eritrea and their new friend Mohamed is Somalian. In broken but clear English Ahmed explains how they came in a big wooden boat that was overcrowded with 600 people. I’m aware this is an exaggeration but I’m sure that’s how it must of felt on the boat. They explain that they have been travelling for months and they were transported to the sea in a small trailer with 30 people in it. They had been hiding from the police and from Da’ish (Isis).

Some of their group were caught by the ‘Police’ and haven’t made it. I asked  what happens when you get caught and they said you are put in prison and have to pay to get out. They all have the same story about how their families gathered money to pay the people smugglers. Ahmed says it cost them 3600 US Dollars each. Mohamed has a different story saying he has been moved around by the smugglers for 2 years, “They beat me sometimes. It is different price for Somalia – $9000 and 2 years to get here.” I asked them how they went about contacting the smugglers. There seems to be a system of contacts by mobile phone. “They give us numbers, phone numbers. You phone the number and they help you get to Europe. You meet them in the Sahara and they take you from there.” “Different prices for different type of ship.”


When I ask them why they didn’t leave Libya another way they explain that there are too many obstacles – the Sahara is one of those obstacles. When I ask them why they are leaving and going to Europe Mohamed says in Europe people know humanity. “Economy has collapsed. Life in Libya has collapsed. In Africa there is no life. No life anywhere. No humanity. We are wishing for a good life, a better life.”. I draw a picture of them.

The next day, June 22nd, as HMS Bulwark docks in Taranto I meet Ruairi Holohan, a Navy Reservist working on the ship as an interpreter. He speaks French and a little Arabic but it’s his background as a Social Worker and his ability to get the migrants talking that have earned him the nick-name The Migrant Whisperer. He introduces me to the Kang family from Syria. They are a family group travelling together consisting of Mum, Najwa, Dad, Wlead a young man called Akba and his four sisters, Lojin, Yara, Sham and Raghad. Mum proudly tells me her son was a medical student in Tripoli and her daughter is a dental student. Ruairi had explained to me that they were Syrain Dreuze – the most persecuted ethnic group that Isis target. During the early days of the Isis campaign the Dreuze fled to the mountains in Syria and ultimately Mr Kang and his family fled Syria altogether and tried to make a life in Libya. Things began to deteriorate in Libya and after one of his sons friends is shot in the street Wlead decides they must leave Libya.

Akba describes their ordeal. He says he met people in Zwrra who he paid to take them to Europe. I mention that the boys I spoke to yesterday told me about having to hide from the police and mum says “No, not Police!”. Akba describes them as “like Mafia. Men only, with guns. They came and took the man we were living with. We were staying at his home with him and his wife, they are here.” Akba introduces me to an older man and his wife. “They take him outside. They take the money. They say give all the money or we will kill your friends.” Mum says, “They stole our money.” Akba then describes how they got a car and “Go, Go, Go to the sea.” They clambered into a small boat and then got picked up by this big ship. It appears that after their money was stolen the man he had introduced me to had paid €1050 to get them on the boat.


“It’s a pleasure to be here with you, for us. I just want to help people. Like these people.” – he points to medical team. They go on to explain how they sent on their children’s academic accreditations to their uncle in Germany in case they got lost. They are going to Germany to start again and get the children back into University to finish their studies.

As I draw my final picture of this journey, the family make their way along the gangway of HMS Bulwark to the waiting tents, Italian Red Cross doctors and nurses, Police and Anti-Terrorism Services, to be ‘processed’ again and start the next stage of their journey, who-knows-where, as they try to make their way to Germany to a life they believe will be safe and free. A life in a country that will let them achieve their goals and live as a normal family free of the persecution they have been forced to flee from, first from their home country of Syria and then again from Libya.


If we remain detached from these events and more importantly the lives of the people caught up in them we are simply avoiding the real crisis. We appear to be dehumanising them by referring to the problems they cause rather than allowing ourselves to contemplate the fact that they are people no different from us. They are not some sort of scourge come to interrupt the lives we take for granted. They have the same aspirations we all have and they are doing the same, I imagine, as any of us would should we find ourselves in a similar situation.

By being directly involved with the migrants in the way the men and woman of the Naval Services have been each and every one of the crew members I spoke to are proud of the work they are doing. They are committed to SOLAS – Saving Of Life At Sea. They see the migrants as the people they are – fathers and mothers with children, infants and babies. Brothers and sisters. Friends both old and newly discovered during their extraordinary and often harrowing journeys.

© Copyright Dan Peterson 2015



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